An undocumented immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez has been in prison since he allegedly killed U.S. citizen Katherine Steinle in July, on a San Francisco pier. He was released from jail when the drug charges against him were dropped, under a law referred to as a “sanctuary law.” Not long afterward, Lopez-Sanchez allegedly shot Steinle. Ever since then, the term “sanctuary cities” has been bandied about in the media, due to San Francisco’s status as one of them. However, as with many terms that come to the forefront of the media, there is quite a lot of misinformation being bandied about. It is important to understand what a sanctuary city actually is, and what it is not.
The Steinle Case and its Fallout
In this case, Lopez-Sanchez was freed from the city jail after the drug charges against him were dropped. A few hours later, he allegedly shot Steinle on a city pier. The sanctuary laws of San Francisco prohibit informing federal authorities of a person’s undocumented status if they are not in custody for immigration-related offenses. While Lopez-Sanchez alleged it was an accident, it appears to have been more a crime of opportunity. The crux of the matter is that he had been deported five times (in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2003 and 2009) and yet, continued to be able to re-enter the country.
Due to the timing, this case became a talking point in the case against sanctuary laws and cities, with presidential candidates and pundits weighing in on both sides of the issue. Those who oppose both argue that Steinle—and conceivably, others—would be alive if law enforcement detainers were honored at all times. They point to the Steinle case and to the resurgence of gang activity in Mexican border states as proof that sanctuary laws only breed ‘safe havens’ for criminality. Proponents of sanctuary laws argue that by not handing those in custody on non-immigration related matters over to federal authorities for possible deportation, trust is earned in the immigrant community.
Dispelling the Myths
There are two critical myths about sanctuary cities that require debunking. One is that undocumented immigrants exploit sanctuary laws and cities by committing a higher proportion of crime in the U.S. than immigrants who obtain status lawfully. Reliable data simply does not back up this assertion.
In 2015, a study published in Justice Quarterly shows that the overall violent crime rate for first and second generation immigrants is lower than that of native born citizens, and since the undocumented are at least a quarter of that population, it leads to the conclusion that the undocumented crime rate cannot be as high as some report (otherwise the overall rate would be significantly higher). If there is no crime rate increase, then the fact that more jurisdictions have added sanctuary laws (or directives, or non-binding resolutions) in recent years is irrelevant.
The other myth that must be busted is that sanctuary laws actually give any significant advantage to the undocumented immigrants that reside in that area. Data on enforcement shows that the gap between theory and practice is wide, especially in areas nearer to the Mexican border. If, for example, a traffic stop is made in the middle of the night, on a busy highway, the officer will telephone Immigration and Customs Enforcement—the mere fact that the police department has a policy of not fulfilling federal detainer requests is irrelevant when one is on the scene. While undocumented immigrants have rights, they do not usually know their rights well enough while in immigration detention, and as such, many law enforcement agencies never even answer for this oversight.
Get an Attorney on Your Side
Because so much discussion has occurred regarding sanctuary laws and cities, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced attorney if you have an immigration question. While local law enforcement may choose not to initiate immigration proceedings against you if you are otherwise law-abiding, that will not guarantee your ability to remain in the U.S. forever. The knowledgeable DuPage County immigration attorneys at our office are happy to answer your questions, and if necessary, to give you the best representation possible. Contact our offices today to set up a free initial appointment.
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